Entering the 2012 season, expectations were low for the Baltimore Orioles. The club has not had a winning season since 1997 and is fresh off its fourth consecutive last-place finish in the American League East. The Orioles retained largely the same roster from the season prior, with their only notable acquisition being the Korean import Wei-Yin Chen. Orioles pitcher Jim Johnson was inserted into the closer’s role, a player who had shown some flashes of greatness in 2011 but was not seen as a game-changer. Yet somehow, despite a roster that paled in comparison to their rivals, the Orioles made it back to the postseason, and Johnson was arguably the team’s most valuable player.
Background: Johnson’s Career Before 2012
Jim Johnson was drafted by the Orioles in the fifth round of the 2001 Major League Baseball Draft out of Union-Endicott High School in Upstate New York and debuted in the majors in 2006. Johnson made just two appearances for the Orioles between 2006 and 2007, and he was shelled for 10 runs in five innings. He was solid in 2008 in 54 appearances, not allowing a homer across 68 2/3 innings. Johnson continued to get consistent reps in 2009, but his numbers regressed due to his home run rate spiking to 1.0 HR/9. After only making 26 appearances in 2010, Johnson made 69 appearances in 2011 and recorded a 2.67 ERA in 91 innings. Johnson also recorded nine saves, though he was primarily the setup man for Kevin Gregg.
Early Season: Hot Start
In his age-29 season, Johnson won the closer’s role over Gregg and Troy Patton out of spring training and made his presence known immediately. Johnson dodged traffic but notched the save on Opening Day, the first of his seven saves and nine scoreless appearances in the month of April. Johnson allowed his first run of the season on May 10 but continued to surprise the league by converting all nine of his save opportunities in the month. By the end of May, Johnson sported a 0.84 ERA with 16 saves, though he only had 14 strikeouts in 21 1/3 innings. Johnson also went through the entire month without allowing a single walk.
End of First Half: No Signs of Slowing Down
Johnson finally blew his first save of the year on June 5 against the Red Sox, giving up a game-tying two-run homer to Jarrod Saltalamacchia with two outs in the ninth inning. However, Johnson recovered with a 1-2-3 10th inning to lock down an 8-6 Baltimore win. Following that appearance though, Johnson converted nine straight save opportunities and allowed just one run to close out the first half. By the All-Star Break, Johnson had a 1.21 ERA and a 0.750 WHIP with 26 saves, though he had just 22 strikeouts and a 3.86 FIP. As a result of his strong surface numbers, Johnson was selected for his first career All-Star Game.
Start of Second Half: Luck Running Out?
In Johnson’s first appearance of the second half, he came in to protect a 4-1 lead against the Tigers. With one out and a man on first, an error by Ryan Flaherty opened the door for a Tigers rally. Jhonny Peralta hit an RBI single, Brennan Boesch followed with an RBI double, and Quentin Berry singled in Danny Worth with the tying run, saddling Johnson with his second blown save of the year. In his next outing, Johnson was brought in with the Orioles trailing the Twins 14-5, and five runs and four hits, raising his season ERA over a full run to 2.56.
Johnson converted his next four saves before entering with a 9-8 lead against the A’s on July 27. After retiring Yoenis Céspedes on a ground out to lead off the inning, Chris Carter, Brandon Inge, and Derek Norris all singled, tying the game up and handing Johnson a blown save. Johnson then walked Brandon Moss before a Jemile Weeks RBI single gave Oakland the lead. Coco Crisp followed with a single of his own, scoring Norris and Moss, ending Johnson’s night. Luis Ayala entered the game and promptly served up a two-run double to Seth Smith, closing the book on Johnson with six runs charged to his name. In a span of fewer than three weeks, Johnson’s ERA had more than tripled to 3.71. While he racked up eight more saves in July, Johnson finished the month with an unsightly 11.70 ERA and 2.400 WHIP, with opponents hitting .420 against him.
Return to Form
Following his disastrous month of July, Johnson looked like the same pitcher that was an All-Star in the first half. He didn’t allow a run in 11 appearances in August, registering 10 more saves without blowing one to bring his season total to 41. While Johnson’s strikeout rate still remained low, he only allowed four hits and recorded his second month where he didn’t issue a single free pass.
Johnson backed up his outstanding month of August by allowing just one run in 14 appearances in September and October. He again went 10-for-10 in save opportunities as the Orioles continued their torrid pace down the stretch to reach the postseason for the first time in 15 years.
In the first-ever AL Wild Card game, Johnson entered to protect a 5-1 lead in the bottom of the ninth inning against the Rangers. Johnson loaded the bases by allowing two hits and a walk but got David Murphy to fly out to end the ballgame and send Baltimore to the ALDS.
Facing the division-rival Yankees, Johnson was brought into a tie game in the series opener but immediately surrendered a go-ahead homer to Russell Martin. The Yankees didn’t stop there, as three straight singles from Raul Ibañez, Derek Jeter, and Ichiro Suzuki plated another run. After Alex Rodriguez struck out, Robinson Canó smacked a two-run double to put the game out of reach. Tommy Hunter relieved Johnson and allowed a sacrifice fly, charging Johnson with a fifth run.
Johnson rebounded the following day, pitching a 1-2-3 ninth inning to preserve a 3-2 win and even up the series. In game 3, Johnson had a chance to put the Yankees on the brink of elimination, protecting a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the ninth. With one out though, Raul Ibañez smacked a pinch-hit homer, tying the game at 1. Johnson recovered and threw a clean 10th inning, but the O’s lost the wild game in 12 innings on Ibañez’s second homer of the game.
Johnson had to wait until the 13th inning to enter game 4, once again protecting a one-run lead. This time, however, he set the Yankees down in order, sending the series to a decisive game 5. Johnson never made it into game 5 though, as the Orioles were sent packing in a 3-1 defeat.
Season Totals: A Statistical Oddity
All told, Johnson finished the year going 51-for-54 in save opportunities, setting an Orioles single-season for saves. He registered a 2.49 ERA/3.25 FIP and a 1.019 WHIP, both of which remained the best marks of his career. For his efforts, Johnson was given the Rolaids Relief Award for the American League. He finished seventh in Cy Young voting and 14th in MVP voting.
However, despite his eye-popping save total, Johnson recorded just 41 strikeouts across 68 2/3 innings (5.3 K/9) and didn’t strike out more than eight batters in a given month. In fact, Johnson remains the only pitcher in MLB history to record 50 saves in a season while striking out fewer than 50 batters.
How did Johnson achieve such greatness with a low strikeout rate? He allowed just three homers all season, giving a minuscule rate of 0.4 HR/9. Furthermore, Johnson registered a staggering 63.3-percent ground-ball rate and only allowed a 13.3-percent line-drive rate. Opponents only managed a .556 OPS against Johnson, the lowest mark of his career.
Ensuing Years: More History Made
While Johnson wasn’t as dominant in 2013, he led the majors in saves for the second straight year with 50. He joined Mariano Rivera and Eric Gagné as the only pitchers to record multiple 50-save seasons, with Gagné being the only other player to have them in consecutive years. Since 2000, Johnson is the only AL pitcher to lead the league in saves outright in consecutive seasons.
Following the 2013 season, Johnson was traded to the A’s, where he was unable to keep his magic going and was released in the middle of the season. Johnson had some success in 2015 and 2016 in Atlanta –– he even became a bit of a strikeout pitcher with 68 strikeouts in 64.2 innings in 2016. Johnson recorded 51 saves in parts of three seasons with the Braves before being shipped to the Angels after the 2017 season. He retired after the 2018 season, finishing his career with 178 saves and a 3.79 ERA/3.76 FIP. While Johnson wasn’t a flamethrower and didn’t miss a ton of bats, he should be remembered as a statistical anomaly that we may never see again.
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